A family perform a ceremonial offering to relatives and ancestors from North Korea in front of a military fence at Imjingak Peace Park near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas in Paju on Oct. 1 during the annual Chuseok holiday. (Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP)
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken the sheen away from South Korea's biggest holiday, Chuseok, which people traditionally celebrate with visits to hometowns, family gatherings and paying tribute to ancestors.
The major festival, whose name means autumn eve, ended over the weekend, but it has been a lonely affair this year, with many Koreans opting for a contactless ritual via online streaming of activities.
Korean Christians traditionally visit cemeteries to pay tribute to their ancestors. But this year Catholic cemeteries and memorial parks wore a deserted look when the five-day holiday period started on Sept. 30.
Visiting ancestral graves is the most common tradition for Christians and non-Christians during Chuseok. However, this year the numerous memorial parks across the country downed their shutters during the holiday to arrest the spread of the coronavirus.
The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, the government department looking after national cemeteries, banned entry to 11 cemeteries from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.
Cecil Kim Hyo-jeong, a housewife in Seoul, said that since her marriage in 2003 her family "visited my husband's parents in Busan during the holidays like Chuseok Day. We also usually go to the graves of grandparents and talked about them. However, this Chuseok we couldn't."
She told UCA News that they were "afraid that we could bring the Covid-19 virus to our old parents-in-law. We just stayed at home during this long holiday. I think the virus took even our family tradition and holidays."
The biggest memorial park under the Incheon Metropolitan Government, which usually sees some 3,000 visitors daily, has been closed.
Cultural shifts are already taking place in the once Confucian society, which has seen an erosion of traditional family ties and a rapidly aging population.
Some of the old family traditions have died in Asia's fourth-largest economy due to rapid urbanization and lower birth rates.
The Ministry of Health has joined hands with the Korea Funeral Culture and Policy Institute to make available an "e-sky burial information system," which has provision for an online visit to memorial parks across the country. Families can adorn online graves with photo albums and share memorial services through social media.
In a survey by e-commerce platform TMON, 47 percent of Korean respondents said they would prefer to spend Chuseok holidays within immediate family members' circle, while 18 percent preferred skipping meeting family members.
Concerns over a new wave of infections have forced the government to implement Level 2 social distancing rules on indoor meetings involving 50 people and outdoor meetings with 100 people.
A rise in Covid-19 infections in South Korea in mid-August and September forced the government to implement social distancing norms and other preventive measures.
The 38 new cases registered on Sept. 29, the lowest daily increase in the past 50 days, took the national tally to 23,699 cases with 407 deaths.
The government's anti-coronavirus steps during Chuseok included a ban on eating at restaurants on highways. People also had to pay to drive on national expressways. The charges are usually waived during the holiday.
Chuseok, also called Hangawi, is a harvest festival often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in the US and Canada. Participants eat a half-moon-shaped rice cake called songpyeon.
Local media reported that this year's holiday had caused generational conflicts between young and old people. The former insist on spending the holiday individually while the latter prefer to catch up with family members.